Partner exits, failed merger and debt killed off Brobeck

Brobeck Phleger & Harrison fell apart in 2003 under the combined pressures of a mass exodus of partners, failed merger talks and a heavy debt burden.

When it came, the end was remarkably swift. On Wednesday 29 January 2003, the West Coast firm lost Texas-based Steven Zager, a major Brobeck rainmaker and head of the firm’s litigation practice, who announced his decision to leave for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, having fervently denied plans to depart just a week earlier. Only hours later, Morgan Lewis & Bockius, the white knight that had come to save Brobeck late the previous year after talks with fellow US firm Hogan & Hartson had faltered in October, turned away from a merger. And by that Thursday, the decision to dissolve the firm was taken.

Since the break-up, the firm has been caught in a series of litigious battles as it tries to claw back some of its money. Ronald Greenspan, Brobeck’s trustee in bankruptcy, has filed suits against more than 220 former partners seeking bonuses paid after the firm became insolvent. The suits include a $3.1m (£1.7m) claim against former corporate partner Warren Lazarow.

Last year, Clifford Chance and Morgan Lewis agreed multimillion-dollar settlements with Brobeck. In Clifford Chance’s case, the payment was in part to settle claims that the firm had been instrumental in the demise of Brobeck after chairman Tower Snow defected to the UK magic circle firm with a major team of lawyers.

There was some good news, though. Brobeck’s European operation, which operated as a joint venture with Hale and Dorr, dodged dissolution after the Boston-based firm promised to take the London, Oxford and Munich offices under its wing.